Can history be wished away by demolishing buildings – this searching question asked by cricket legend Imran Khan sums up the sentiment of historians for Jinnah House, witness to Jinnah-Gandhi talks and meetings of the Muslim League that shaped the subcontinent’s destiny. The sprawling palatial structure spread across 2.5 acre at Malabar Hill in South Mumbai was built by Mohammed Ali Jinnah in 1936 at a cost of Rs 2 lakh. He personally supervised the construction brick by brick and lived there till the partition of India in 1947.
Lying vacant for nearly three decades, the mansion was designed by architect Claude Batley in European style, complete with Italian marble and walnut woodwork.
The prime property has been a bone of contention between India and Pakistan for long with the neighbouring country demanding that it be handed over to it to set up its consulate in Mumbai.
Pakistan recently voiced concern over the demand by a BJP legislator for demolition of the bungalow and reiterated its claim for the “ownership” right over it.
Situated on the Bhausaheb Hire Marg at Malabar Hill opposite ‘Varsha’, the official residence of Maharashtra’s Chief Minister, the spot used to be known as Mount Pleasant Road during the Britsh rule.
After Independence, it was leased to the British High Commission as the residence of the Deputy High Commissioner till early 1980s.
In 1983, the Jinnah House was declared an unoccupied property and kept under the upkeep of the state Public Works Department.
The building was in news recently when the Malabar Hill legislator from BJP, Mangal Prabhat Lodha, demanded that the structure be pulled down and a cultural centre highlighting the tradition and history of India and Maharashtra raised in its place.
Dubbing it as a “symbol of partition”, Lodha said that Jinnah House was witness to the history leading to the partition of India as the Muslim League leader held several important meetings there to take his two-nation theory forward from 1944 to 1947.
Reacting to the suggestion, Pakistani cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan termed it as “disturbing” and said that “history cannot be wished away” by demolishing buildings.
History enthusiasts make a strong case for preservation of the majestic structure, as a witness to many events, including the Mahatma Gandhi-Jinnah talks.
Jawaharlal Nehru and Subhas Chandra Bose were among the visitors to the bungalow.
Lokmanya Tilak Swaraj Bhoomi Trust’s Prakash Silam wanted the bungalow to be handed over to the organisation for it to build a memorial in honour of the nationalist, famously known as “Lion of Maharashtra.”
“Jinnah helped Tilak in the freedom struggle and considering their friendship, Jinnah House should be given to the trust,” he said.
Jinnah practised as a lawyer in the Bombay High Court last century and even defended Bal Gangadhar Tilak in a famous sedition case slapped on him by the British rule.
Jatin Desai, secretary of the India chapter of Pakistan India Peoples Forum for Peace and Democracy, said it is ironical that Jinnah, who mooted the idea of a separate nation for Muslims, was a Mumbaikar at heart and could never imagine settling down in any other city.
“Even as he moved to Karachi after partition, Jinnah wished to spend his last days in his beloved house in his beloved city Bombay. However, he passed away few months after Pakistan’s creation,” Desai told PTI.
He suggested that the building be used to house a centre to promote peace and friendship between India and Pakistan or a SAARC cultural centre.
Nehru understood Jinnah’s attachment to his Mumbai house and declared it as an evacuee property instead of “enemy property” after Jinnah died, he said.
When former Pakistan President General Pervez Musharraf came to India in 2001 for the Agra summit talks with the then Prime Minister Atal Bihari Vajpayee, he proposed that Jinnah House could be used to set up the Pakistani Consulate. However, India rejected the demand.
Deepak Rao, a Mumbai-based historian, said Jinnah was exceptionally fond of the city and wished to maintain his connect with the place even after partition.
He recalled that it was earlier maintained by Indian Council for Cultural Relations (ICCR).
Another historian Rafiq Bagdadi said Jinnah House should be converted into a museum. “Jinnah lived and practised law in Mumbai. He wrote to Nehru from Pakistan urging him to preserve his bungalow,” he said.
“His correspondence should be seen in the context of the times, and the persona of leaders like Nehru. They could disagree on many issues but agree to be polite and write letters to each other,” he said.
A museum would be a reflection of the period and the younger generation can have an idea of political leaders from Mumbai during that period, Bagdadi said.
In 2010, the Central government told the Bombay High Court that it had gained total legal ownership of the Jinnah House.
The Ministry of External Affairs, in an affidavit before the high court, claimed that the government had acquired the Jinnah House in Mumbai as an evacuee property.
“The property vests absolutely with the Central government and there is no residuary right or reversion in favour of either evacuees or their heirs,” the affidavit said.